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Human Genome project generates new funds for science


Sequencing the human genome in a bingo hall
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Now, at that time I'd actually gone back to work with bacteria, to see if I could map a whole bacterium with the new techniques. That is, to get overlapping clones of cosmids and John Sulston joined me and we worked at that point — he'd also got a bit fed up with the nematode at that point — and we worked then developing techniques for an organism called Rhodopseudomonas blastica. It was just some small bacterium. And having developed various fingerprinting techniques so that we could do this, John then thought that what he would do is just take this straight off into C. elegans (Caenorhabditis elegans), which is what he did. And we continued a little with technology for bacteria and with... we worked with Rhizobium and I have to say I'm still interested in that and I'm still doing experiments to find good ways of getting maps of bacteria very quickly... ordered DNA clones. However, when all of this got moving at the more public level, and it had all started when Sinsheimer called a meeting of people to which I didn't go, because I couldn't go, this was in 1986. And John Sulston and Bart Barrell who was a sequencer and who had done the whole of EBV — Epstein-Barr Virus — which was the largest genome done at that time, they went. And the idea was, which Wally Gilbert appeared as the... the leading inspirer, the chief optimist, if you like... was that we should... the Holy Grail was to just sequence the whole of the human genome. Now, I think that that was... I mean, there was no technology and there still is today no technology that would allow us to do this in some reasonable time. And I got very heavily involved into the... the human genome programs, I got onto the American committee on this to decide where it is, and that history has been written over and over again. But the important thing to realise is that there was first of all gigantic antagonism of... of the scientists to this project. The... there's antagonism in that the way it was pictured was there'd be a factory somewhere that would generate sequences, right. And such factories are not... they are viable, but not in the context of science. That is, I... I still have to convince scientists that there are people in the world who would do this work, it's a job. They wouldn't be interested in the result. Because what they'd be interested in is the money, so that on Friday afternoon they can take that money and then go and pursue their interests, like have boats or gardens or so on. Scientists don't imagine that there are people like this. They think everybody is a student with a kind of right... inalienable right to be a genius, and that this would actually clamp him, and it's just not true, there are lots of people happy at their work. In fact, I thought we could actually do this by having something that was like a bingo hall. That is we could have these machines and we could put up the sequence of the day, people would actually pay to come and operate these machines and we'd have a prize. So it would cost you £10 to operate the machine, but if you happened to get the sequence of the day there'd be a prize of a £1000. And I think we'd be deluged with people wanting to come and play the machines, and we could put these up in shopping malls and supermarkets, we'd just get the sequence done very easily. And indeed, you know, although there are three billion base pairs, you realise in principle it could be done in an afternoon, let us say, by the population of China. Of course there's a bit of a problem organising the population to do it, but each would only have to do three of them, you see, of course. But so, I thought we needed... that showed very clearly that the perception of people as to what was understood by scientific work was... did seem to me to be very different. And everybody complained that this is going to be... bring in big science. You know, and everybody would be enslaved in some way. And of course... and... and then of course the real motives occurred, it would divert money from them. So the real issue about whether this could be funded or not — the project, the human genome project — is that it had to satisfy some kind of threshold of new money, so that it wouldn't be taking it away from the people, otherwise there would be screams and shouts, and that's really what all the politics was about. Where can you get new money?

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: C. elegans, Caenorhabditis elegans, John Sulston, Bart Barrell

Duration: 6 minutes, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010